A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 8: when is an emoji not an emoji?

This is the tenth in a series of thirteen posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1, continue to PART 11 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

As exuberant as emoji can be in the right hands, our palette of emoji remains tightly controlled by the Unicode Consortium. There are, however, other ways to embed colourful graphics in your digital messages, and, in the long run, there is every possiblity that they may elbow emoji out of the way entirely. The future of emoji may not be emoji at all.

Appropriately, given emoji’s invention in Japan, the first cracks in emoji’s monopoly on cutesy inline graphics came out of that same country.

In 2011, in the wake of a tsunami that devastated the north-east coast of Japan’s main island,1 the country’s telecommunication networks were thrown into disarray. Only the internet, designed from its inception to route data packets around broken network links, continued to function reliably — a fact not lost on NHN Japan, an internet company that chose in June of that year to launch a mobile messaging app based not on fragile SMS text messages but rather fault-tolerant mobile data services. It was called Line and it was a runaway success, hitting 50-million users just a year after launch.2

Though Line’s developers had chosen to use the internet for its robustness, by happy coincidence this also meant that they were not confined to text-only messages. Instead, they could send whatever data they liked. This allowed them to connect users in two notable ways: first, Line users could call one another for free, over the caller and callee’s respective mobile data connections; second, users could embed digital images called “stickers” in Line’s SMS-like text messages. These stickers took the form of larger, more detailed versions of existing emoji, along with a slew of additional manga-like characters, that could be sent back and forth either within or in lieu of textual messages.3,4

Line’s stickers were a hit. The app was and is popular in countries whose complex scripts are difficult to enter on smartphones, such as Japan, Thailand, Korea and Taiwan, in part because stickers can convey complex sentiments with a minimum of effort. Moreover, stickers have also turned out to be a formidable revenue stream. In 2013, just two years after its launch, Line made $17 million from sales of downloadable sticker packs;3 two years after that, sticker sales were up to $271 million. This is not to mention that some of Line’s cartoonish sticker personalities, such as “Brown” the bear and a rabbit named Cony, have become so popular that they now have their own lines of merchandise worth tens of millions of dollars in their own right.5 (Even in China, where Line’s apps are blocked by that country’s “Great Firewall”, knicknacks featuring Cony, Brown and company are sought after.6)

Graphical stickers designed by Line in collaboration with Unicef
Line stickers designed in collaboration with Unicef in 2015. (Image courtesy of LINE Corporation.)

Though Line struggled to make a dent in Western markets, its sticker concept has been more easily exported. Facebook Messenger gained its own sticker feature in 2013;7 Google Hangouts followed in 2014;8 and WhatsApp brought up the rear in 2018.9

The real genius of the sticker concept, though, is not that it is easy to clone, or that stickers are easy to use (after all, emoji are too), or that they can be sold for cold, hard cash. It is this: the Unicode Consortium has no influence over them. True, most stickers are confined to their home app, such as Line, Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat, but that is perfectly fine with the owners of those apps, who retain complete control over the sentiments and symbols their users can express with them. For Line, Facebook, Snap Inc., and more, stickers are the perfect vehicle to build their brand, to indulge in some marketing cross-overs, and to make some money into the bargain.7 They are the BTS10 of the emoji world — slick, popular and very much for sale — and there is a real chance that stickers, or something very like them, will supplant the real thing.

Although “real” stickers are usable only within their host app, there is a different but related species that ranges more broadly: in recent years, so-called ’moji apps have proliferated like weeds. Put simply, ’moji are emoji- or sticker-like images that can be sent as graphical MMS messages, as email attachments, or, indeed, in any medium that supports embedded bitmap images. At the time of writing it is possible to find ’moji collections for WWE, the wrestling promoter; singer Justin Bieber; Disney’s roster of animated characters; videogame protagonist Crash Bandicoot;11,12,13,14 and many others celebrities and organisations of varying staying power. (Until recently, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West boasted her own “Kimoji” app; now, however, it seems to have disappeared, perhaps due to a lawsuit filed against Kardashian West by the software company that developed it.15)

A select few ’moji apps have crossed the line from whimsical to worthy. In 2015, for example, Finland’s tourist board launched an electronic advent calendar loaded with icons depicting patriotic activies such as visiting the sauna and cross-country skiing, along with notable Finnish exports such as the Nokia 3310 cellphone and stoic Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkönen.16 Those same icons were then published in ’moji apps for Android and iOS devices.17

Finnish 'moji
A selection of Finland’s national ’moji. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 image courtesy of the Finland Promotion Board.)

“We have been anything but serious when creating these emoji [sic],” said Petra Theman, Director for Public Diplomacy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, at the launch. “Hopefully they will open up not only our weirdness but also our strengths of which unarming honesty is one example.”16

It would easy to dismiss this as a public relations stunt were it not that the “woolly socks” and “sauna” ’moji have since been adopted as real emoji. Themann, displaying the same disarming honesty she hoped Finland’s ’moji would convey, was reportedly disappointed that the newly-minted PERSON IN STEAMY ROOM emoji (🧖) is usually clothed in a towel, rather than naked as nature intended.18

The rise of downloadable stickers and ’moji revealed a universal truth that plain old emoji had not: people will buy almost anything. And as companies continue to jump on the sticker bandwagon, emoji too are looking increasingly attractive as a way to turn messages into money.

First, and most obvious, emoji themselves are being hawked as saleable commodities. JoyPixels, a company founded to provide an open source emoji set, now sells “premium” licences for use in commercial projects.19 And in February 2017, a German firm styling itself “emoji company GmbH” successfully bullied Sony Pictures Animation, perpetrators of The Emoji Movie, into paying for the right to use the word “emoji” in the title of their movie. Upon inspection, in fact, emoji company appears to rely on a business model that consists largely of buying up and licensing out emoji-related trademarks around the world.20 Consider this 🐂💩 bingo—winning statement given by emoji company CEO Marco Hüsges:

Based on our various trademarks and IPs we are proactively developing new brand concepts to address different target audiences and to support our global partners with fresh and powerful marketing concepts.21

Fresh and powerful marketing concepts, and the implicit threat of legal action.

Worse yet than the weaponisation of emoji are those instances where is it not emoji that are being sold, but rather it is us, the audience, who are being sold on their behalf. Many advertisers are prepared pay to good money (and, as we’ll see, bad money) to show us the emoji of their choice.

Granted, emoji advertising has not been an easy nut to crack. For one, Unicode’s iron grip on the transmission of text means that only standard emoji can be sent via open media such as email and SMS. Only if an advertiser has access to a closed system such as a social network or a messaging app can they tempt us with emojified Starbucks logos or Coca Cola ribbons. In 2017, for instance, a marketing firm called InMoji (is creativity dead on Madison Avenue?) launched an online advertising network in which corporate clients buy sticker-based ads that can allegedly reach millions of potential consumers on platforms such as Line and Facebook.22 It remains to be seen whether they will succeed: the five-year-old company last raised funding in February 2017, taking it to a slim $9.3m in total, and has operated largely under the radar since then.23

Another company, however, has successfully turned emoji-style advertising into an art form. In 2010, during that year’s soccer World Cup, Twitter introduced what it called “hashflags”. These were emoji-style flags displayed beside hashtags associated with national soccer teams, so that #ENG was accompanied by 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿, #BRA by 🇧🇷, #USA by 🇺🇸, and so on.24* By dint of owning the websites and apps on which its users view their messages, Twitter was able to insert these custom flags into tweets so that they appeared to be real emoji.25 Living in an uncanny valley between stickers and emoji, hashflags were a runaway success.

Next, Twitter began to charge for the privilege of choosing which hashflags appeared next to which hashtags. Coca Cola was the first customer, in 2015,26 and since then a diverse group of clients have joined in: Metallica, the rock band, paid for a stylised “M” to appear beside “#metallica” and “#hardwiredtoselfdestruct” during the release of the eponymous album;27 Cadbury, the chocolate company, placed a Santa Claus icon beside “#cadvent” in the run-up to Christmas 2016;28 #Batman and #Superman saw their respective emblems turned into hashflags during the cinematic release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice;29 and so on.

One particular hashflag customer, though, will live on in infamy. In the midst of 2016’s acrimonous US presidential race, Donald Trump’s campaign signed what it claimed to be a $5m advertising deal with Twitter intended to attack Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival for the presidency. Twitter, however, got cold feet.

To hear it told by Gary Coby, Trump’s director of digital advertising, Twitter helped to design a hashflag, to be associated with the hashtag “#CrookedHillary”, that showed a disembodied hand receiving a bag of money — in reference, Coby said, to Clinton’s alleged enrichment while in public office. Later, Coby asked Twitter to modify the icon so that it showed a stick figure running off with the same bag of cash, but Twitter pushed back against the changes. The social network told Coby that implying that Clinton had committed a crime was potentially libellious, and, as a result, they would not be running either hashflag.

Undeterred, Coby proposed a third hashflag in the form of a moneybag with wings (is creativity dead in Washington DC?) that represented, as he had it, “[government] waste and money flying away from taxpayers”. Again, Twitter approved and then rejected the design, citing new concerns that political hashflags would not meet Federal Election Committee disclosure rules.

The Trump campaign did not take this well. First, Coby cancelled what he said were millions of dollars’ worth of Twitter adverts.30 Then, in a thinly-veiled addition of insult to injury, in December 2016 Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey was left off the guest list for a heavily-publicised meeting at Trump Tower attended by the president-elect and the heads of tech titans such as Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Tesla.31 Sean Spicer, a Republican party spokesman, told journalists that there was no malice involved — “the conference table was only so big”32 — but observers were left with little doubt that Dorsey’s omission was a punishment for Twitter’s earlier transgressions.

Was Twitter right, after all was said and done, to have worried about the legality of Trump’s Clinton-baiting hashflags? Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner got the government’s take: “A top F.E.C. official [said] that the agency does not regulate emoji and that such transparency isn’t required on tweets.” Such are the issues in the brave new world of emoji, stickers and hashflags.33

If there is one comfort to be had in all this, it is that stickers, ’moji and hashflags, with all of their corporate baggage and lack of interoperability, are still poor cousins to emoji proper. Want an icon that will look the same in Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, or that will travel as well over SMS as email? Emoji is still the only game in town, and the Unicode Consortium is still its stalwart gatekeeper.

That said, Unicode is in the midst of a minor but ongoing crisis of emoji confidence. Its members wonder whether it might be possible to break the yearly cycle of emoji season; whether they might escape to a halcyon world in which they can stop worrying about whether ‘💩’ needs a sad poo counterpart (current thinking: it does not34) and get back to their roots in text encoding.

Next time round: what lies ahead for emoji?

“Japan Earthquake: Tsunami Hits North-East”, BBC News, March–2011. 
Mari Saito, “Born from Japan Disasters, Line App Sets Sights on U.S., China”, Reuters, August–2012. 
Jon Russell, “Asian Messenger Line Made {\$}58 Million in Q1 2013”, TNW, May–2013. 
Ryan Bushey, “The History of LINE, Japan’s Most Popular Texting App”, Business Insider
Jon Russell, “Chat App Line Makes over {\$}270 Million a Year from Selling Stickers”, TechCrunch, June–2016. 
Josh Horwitz, “One Year After the Government Banned Its Chat App, Line Is Still in China—selling Lattes and Tote Bags”, Quartz, August–2015. 
Caitlin McGarry, “Why Facebook Stickers aren’t As Dumb As They Sound | PCWorld”, PCWorld, July–2013. 
Stephen Shankland, “Google Injects Smarts, Stickers into Hangouts Communication App”, CNET, December–2014. 
Damien Wilde, “WhatsApp Stickers Are Finally Here”, 9to5Google, October–2018. 
Nam Hyun-woo, “Corporate Sponsors Dying to Hire BTS”, The Korea Times, October–2018. 
Inc. AppMoji, “‎WWEmoji”, Apple App Store
Kapps Media LLC, “Justmoji”, Google Play, 2016. 
Poets Road, “CrashMoji™”, Google Play, 2018. 
Inc. Jam City, “Disney Emoji Blitz”, Google Play, 2019. 
Rachel Siegel, “Emoji Wars: Kim Kardashian West Sued for {\$}300 Million over the Use of Popular Kimoji”, Washington Post, February–2019. 
Jenita Cresswell, “Stuck on the Feeling”, ThisisFINLAND, December–2015. 
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, “Finland Emojis”, Google Play, 2017. 
David Leveille, “Finland Expresses Its Unique Nordic Culture in Emojis”, The World, November–2016. 
EmojiOne, “EmojiOne Reinvents Itself, Releases All-New Emoji Designs”, 2017. 
Vicky Huang, “How One Company Is Cashing In on Emoji-Crazed Consumers”, TheStreet
emoji company emoji company GmbH, “Emoji Company Announces Acquisition of Rights”, Medianet, 2017. 
Curtis Silver, “Inmoji Launches Self-Service Platform For Anyone To Advertise Using Emojis”, Forbes
“InMoji”, Crunchbase, 2019. 
MG Siegler, “Tweeeeeeeeeeeeeet! Twitter Has A Way To Show Off Your World Cup Allegiances”, TechCrunch, June–2010. 
Alissa Walker, “Twitter’s Hashflags Are an Abomination, and They Must Be Stopped”, Gizmodo, September–2015. 
Jordan Valinksy, “Coke Is the First Brand to Get a Custom Twitter Emoji”, Digiday, September–2015. 
Joe Divita, “Metallica Get Twitter Emojis, Create Own Metallica Logo”, Loudwire, November–2016. 
Cadbury UK, “Deck Your Tweets With Our Festive New Emoji. Use #Cadvent to See It Pop Up!”, Twitter, 2016. 
Justin Garrity, “How Custom Emojis Crowned Twitter the Hashtag Registrar”, Medium, February–2016. 
Gary Coby, “A CALL WITH JACK: How Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, Restricted Advertising for Trump’s Campaign”, Medium, November–2016. 
Nancy Scola, “Source: Twitter Cut Out of Trump Tech Meeting over Failed Emoji Deal”, Politico, December–2016. 
Andrew Rafferty, “Trump Pledges Aid to Silicon Valley During Tech Meeting”, NBC News, December–2016. 
Paul Bedard, “Twitter Trips Trump, Reneges on {\$}5M Deal, Emoji Denial of Service”, The Washington Examiner, October–2016. 
“Sad Poop Emoji Gets Flushed After Row”, BBC News, December–2017. 
Official emoji flags have since arrived in the Unicode standard, but when Twitter first used them in 2010 it had to commission its own custom flag icons. Those official flag emoji, by the way, still do not display correctly on Windows machines. 

2 comments on “Emoji, part 8: when is an emoji not an emoji?

  1. Comment posted by Roy Hodges on

    Actually the first emoji was most likely cave paintings and thankfully there was not commentary to obstruct language’s progress. [ insert emoji here ]

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Roy – thanks for the comment! But where would we (and by “we” I mean “I”) be without the commentary?

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